Saturday, April 30, 2005

Salty staircase in the Atlantic provides clues to ocean mixing

Salty staircase in the Atlantic provides clues to ocean mixing
Layers of salty ocean water mix with layers of fresher water, creating a salty staircase or layering driven by small-scale convection known as salt fingers. Although scientists have known about salt fingers since 1960, when they were discovered at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, they have not understood their role in ocean mixing and the ability of the ocean to absorb heat, carbon dioxide and pollutants from the atmosphere. Results of a new experiment, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and reported in today’s issue of Science, indicate that salt fingers are vertically mixing ocean waters more than previously thought. The finding will improve understanding of how water masses in the ocean mix, leading to better climate prediction models.

Just a matter of time before this too gets assimilated into the “broader framework.”

The Atheist

The atheist

The idea that evolution could be “random” seems to frighten people. Is it random?

This is a spectacular misunderstanding. If it was random, then of course it couldn’t possibly have given rise to the fantastically complicated and elegant forms that we see. Natural selection is the important force that drives evolution. Natural selection is about as non-random a force as you could possibly imagine. It can’t work unless there is some sort of variation upon which to work. And the source of variation is mutation. Mutation is random only in the sense that it is not directed specifically toward improvement. It is natural selection that directs evolution toward improvement. Mutation is random in that it’s not directed toward improvement.

The idea that evolution itself is a random process is a most extraordinary travesty. I wonder if it’s deliberately put about maliciously or whether these people honestly believe such a preposterous absurdity. Of course evolution isn’t random. It is driven by natural selection, which is a highly non-random force.

Is there an emotional side to the intellectual enterprise of exploring the story of life on Earth?

Yes, I strongly feel that. When you meet a scientist who calls himself or herself religious, you’ll often find that that’s what they mean. You often find that by “religious” they do not mean anything supernatural. They mean precisely the kind of emotional response to the natural world that you’ve described. Einstein had it very strongly. Unfortunately, he used the word “God” to describe it, which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding. But Einstein had that feeling, I have that feeling, you’ll find it in the writings of many scientists. It’s a kind of quasi-religious feeling. And there are those who wish to call it religious and who therefore are annoyed when a scientist calls himself an atheist. They think, “No, you believe in this transcendental feeling, you can’t be an atheist.” That’s a confusion of language.

Friday, April 29, 2005

His Brain, Her Brain

His Brain, Her Brain
(Scientific American)
To address this question, Melissa Hines of City University London and Gerianne M. Alexander of Texas A&M University turned to monkeys, one of our closest animal cousins. The researchers presented a group of vervet monkeys with a selection of toys, including rag dolls, trucks and some gender-neutral items such as picture books. They found that male monkeys spent more time playing with the “masculine” toys than their female counterparts did, and female monkeys spent more time interacting with the playthings typically preferred by girls. Both sexes spent equal time monkeying with the picture books and other gender-neutral toys.

Because vervet monkeys are unlikely to be swayed by the social pressures of human culture, the results imply that toy preferences in children result at least in part from innate biological differences. This divergence, and indeed all the anatomical sex differences in the brain, presumably arose as a result of selective pressures during evolution. In the case of the toy study, males—both human and primate—prefer toys that can be propelled through space and that promote rough-and-tumble play. These qualities, it seems reasonable to speculate, might relate to the behaviors useful for hunting and for securing a mate. Similarly, one might also hypothesize that females, on the other hand, select toys that allow them to hone the skills they will one day need to nurture their young.

Related (but old): Monkeys Pay to See Female Monkey Bottoms

Scientists confirm Earth’s energy is out of balance

Scientists confirm Earth’s energy is out of balance
“This energy imbalance is the ‘smoking gun’ that we have been looking for,” says James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, part of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and the lead author of the study. “It shows that our estimates of the human-made and natural climate forcing agents are about right, and they are driving the Earth toward a warmer climate.”

Time to call in the reiki master.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Does “Intelligent Design” Threaten the Definition of Science?

Does “Intelligent Design” Threaten the Definition of Science?
(National Geographic News)
Intelligent-design theory states that certain features of the natural world are of such complexity that the most plausible explanation is that they are products of an intelligent cause rather than random mutation and natural selection. Supporters of the theory say the nature of the intelligent cause is outside the scope of the theory.

“It matches what a lot of people see. It matches peoples’ intuitions about biology,” said Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Of course, intuition-matching has been the primary driving force behind relativity theory and quantum mechanics.


The intelligent-design movement, Miller said, seeks to allow a non-natural explanation into science. “By altering the definition of science, they seek a playing field where the supernatural can have scientific meaning.”

Excellent. So we’ll have supernaturalists studying mysterious flagellal phenomena from now on. Cool.

Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students’ minds?

Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students’ minds?
Others, including Cordova himself, arrived at intelligent design from almost the opposite direction. Over a coffee earlier that day, he explains how intelligent design helped him resolve his own spiritual crisis five years ago. Since high school, Cordova had been a devout Christian, but as he studied science and engineering at George Mason, he found his faith was being eroded. “The critical thinking and precision of science began to really affect my ability to just believe something without any tangible evidence,” he says.

Indeed. Damn science, without which we’d live such wonderful, magical lives.

Turn Me On, Dead Man

Turn Me On, Dead Man
by Michael Shermer
(Scientific American)
Anecdotes fuel pattern-seeking thought. Aunt Mildred’s cancer went into remission after she imbibed extract of seaweed—maybe it works. But there is only one surefire method of proper pattern recognition, and that is science. Only when a group of cancer patients taking seaweed extract is compared with a control group can we draw a valid conclusion.

We evolved as a social primate species whose language ability facilitated the exchange of such association anecdotes. The problem is that although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the overall phenomenon has endured the winnowing process of natural selection. The Darwin Awards (honoring those who remove themselves from the gene pool), like this column, will never want for examples. Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; science requires training.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Dover hosts speaker on evolution

Dover hosts speaker on evolution
Professor defends intelligent design
(York Daily Record)
Behe, who said he was a Christian, also said he has no trouble accepting that the universe may have begun with a bang some 13 billion years ago. But he can accept this only if the igniter of the bang did so with a plan to get life to where it is today.

He also said he believes there is enough DNA evidence to support the idea that life could have come from a single source and that life is changing to meet the demands of a changing environment.

But, he said that may mean that God, or the designer, is creating through a “secondary means.”

God may work in mysterious ways, but I don’t think genetic drift is so enigmatic. Since we are talking about God, let’s leave sexual selection out of this. After all, his most popular progeny was parthenogenic.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Whatever happened to machines that think?

Whatever happened to machines that think?
(New Scientist)
The problem with chatbots is a symptom of a deeper malaise in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). For years researchers have been promising to deliver technology that will make computers we can chat to like friends, robots that function as autonomous servants, and one day, for better or worse, even produce conscious machines. Yet we appear to be as far away as ever from any of these goals.

But that could soon change. In the next few months, after being patiently nurtured for 22 years, an artificial brain called Cyc (pronounced “psych”) will be put online for the world to interact with. And it’s only going to get cleverer. Opening Cyc up to the masses is expected to accelerate the rate at which it learns, giving it access to the combined knowledge of millions of people around the globe as it hoovers up new facts from web pages, webcams and data entered manually by anyone who wants to contribute.

Crucially, Cyc’s creator says it has developed a human trait no other AI system has managed to imitate: common sense. “I believe we are heading towards a singularity and we will see it in less than 10 years,” says Doug Lenat of Cycorp, the system’s creator.

One small step for a bot, one giant leap for botkind. Let’s see how this one goes.

Friday, April 22, 2005


I stand at the seashore alone and start to think. There are rushing waves, mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business, trillions apart yet forming white surf in unison. Ages on ages before any eyes could see, year after year thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom for what on a dead planet with no life to entertain. Never at rest, tortured by energy; wasted prodigiously by the Sun, poured into space, its might makes the sea roar. Deep in the sea all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves and a new dance starts. Growing in size and complexity, living things, masses of atoms, DNA, proteins dancing a pattern ever more intricate. Out of the cradle onto dry land, here it is standing, atoms with consciousness, matter with curiosity, stands at the sea, wonders at wondering, I, a universe of atoms an atom in the universe.

—Richard Feynman.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

From Dostoyevsky

Excerpt from Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1864)
I will continue calmly concerning persons with strong nerves who do not understand a certain refinement of enjoyment. Though in certain circumstances these gentlemen bellow their loudest like bulls, though this, let us suppose, does them the greatest credit, yet, as I have said already, confronted with the impossible they subside at once. The impossible means the stone wall! What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact. When they prove to you that in reality one drop of your own fat must be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow-creatures, and that this conclusion is the final solution of all so-called virtues and duties and all such prejudices and fancies, then you have just to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just try refuting it.

“Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting; it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall … and so on, and so on.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Church needs better evolution education, says bishops’ official

Church needs better evolution education, says bishops’ official
(Catholic News)
“Denying that humans evolved seems by this point a waste of time,” he said without mentioning specific controversies in the United States.

In recent years, conflicts have arisen in several parts of the country questioning whether evolution should be taught in public schools as scientific fact. In January, the public school board in Cobb County, Ga., voted to appeal a federal judge’s order to remove stickers on science textbooks which said that “evolution is a theory, not a fact.”

Byers said, “The official church sees little danger in evolution.” He cited a 1996 speech by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Science and a 2004 document, “Communion and Stewardship” by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.

The 2004 document “properly recognizes evolutionary theory as firmly grounded in fact,” he said.

But “our educational leadership has been very slow to correct the anti-evolution biases that Catholics pick up from prominent elements in contemporary culture,” he said.

Death to prominent elements in contemporary culture! Let’s hear it for sensible Primates!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Underpass Image

The Underpass Image
(Yahoo News)

Yup, looks like it’s Virgin Mary’s all right. You can even spot the intact hymen if you peer closely.

Jeffrey Mishlove interviews Murray Gell-Mann

The Quantum and the Quasi-Classical: Jeffrey Mishlove interviews Murray Gell-Mann (1998)
(William James Bookstore)
MISHLOVE: The paradox here, if I understand it, is that in quantum theory the probabilistic event is sort of viewed as a probability function, or sometimes I’ve even heard the term a probability cloud. It’s as if both true and false are occurring at the same time.

GELL-MANN: Yes, and that’s what I think is very misleading, and my colleagues think is very misleading. In the Schrödinger cat story, for example, the part I told is very reasonable and simply illustrates that a probabilistic quantum event can be coupled to some classical change in the heavy, macroscopic objects around us. That’s fine. But the other thing people say is, “Well, suppose the cat is in a box, and the quantum event occurs, but you don’t know which way it went, and the cat is dead if it went one way and alive if it went the other, and so until you open the box and see, well, the cat is in some sort of funny quantum-mechanical, coherent mixture of being dead and being alive. That’s very strange and paradoxical and weird, and so on.” It isn’t really true.

MISHLOVE: That was the point Schrödinger tried to make.

GELL-MANN: Well, I don’t know exactly what he was after, but it’s a point that people have belabored after Schrödinger, and I think it’s not really a very good way to look at it, because a live cat certainly is in interaction with its environment. It’s not isolated.

MISHLOVE: That’s right.

GELL-MANN: Even the dead cat is in interaction with its environment. It’s decaying, emanating various chemicals. The live cat of course is breathing and in contact with its environment. Even if the cat is in a box, the box is in contact with the environment. It’s being hit by photons from elsewhere in the universe. It’s radiating a certain number of photons because it’s not at absolute zero; if it were at absolute zero it would certainly not contain a live cat. And so on and so forth. Therefore, whatever it is that we’re talking about, it’s in interaction with other things, and those other things are being averaged over and integrated over and not seen. And under those conditions, the two situations, alive and dead, decohere, as we say. There is no interference between them; they are simply alternatives—just like the alternatives at the race track when either one horse wins or another horse wins; there’s nothing mysterious or peculiar about it. And when you open the box it’s no different from the experience that you may actually have of going to the airport and accepting a cat box and not knowing whether the poor animal is alive or dead until you open the box. It’s exactly the same. The two situations are on different branches of history. They are not coherent with each other because of the interaction with the rest of the world that’s averaged over.

Religious Groups Battle Over Taj, Takings

Religious Groups Battle Over Taj, Takings
“We stand on a very sound footing,” board chief Hafiz Usman told Reuters, saying Shahjehan, who built the Taj as a tomb for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, bequeathed it to the trust’s predecessor.

Like other state Sunni waqfs, the Uttar Pradesh body was granted ownership of Sunni graves in the state and also claims the Taj Mahal as a grave under its care. And, it insists, the emperor and his wife were Sunnis.

But some leaders of the state Shia Waqf board say the mausoleum was built under supervision of an Iranian Shia architect and that Shahjehan was in fact a Shia. So the Shia Waqf should own it.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad says the gleaming white structure, flanked by two mosques, is not even Muslim.

“The Taj Mahal was originally a Hindu temple and should, therefore, be handed over to Hindus,” says VHP chief Ashok Singhal.

Rows over monuments and sacred sites are common in India, which has seen the ebb and flow of invasions for centuries and has variously been ruled by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus.

What about the aliens? Why doesn’t anybody talk about the damn aliens?

Early Universe was Liquid-like, Study Suggests

Early Universe was Liquid-like, Study Suggests
New results from a particle collider suggest that the universe behaved like a liquid in its earliest moments, not the fiery gas that was thought to have pervaded the first microseconds of existence.

By revising physicists’ concept of the early universe, the new discovery offers opportunities to better learn how subatomic particles interact at the most fundamental level. It may also reveal intriguing parallels between gravity and the force that holds atomic nuclei together, physicists said Monday at a Tampa, Fla., meeting of the American Physical Society.

Oopsie! Time to dig for a new quote that fits.

Creationism in California

In My Backyard, Creationism in California
by Eugenie C. Scott
(California Wild)
Unlike creation science, ID makes no fact claims about the origins of the universe, or the history of Earth, or of life on Earth. Instead, it proposes that some things in nature are too complex to have been formed from natural causes and therefore must have been produced by “an intelligence.” Some structures showing an unexpectedly high level of organization (e.g., the first life forms, or cellular structures such as the flagella of bacteria) are inferred to be too complex for chance to have brought them about.

Of course, no evolutionary biologist ascribes the bacterial flagellum or other complex structures to the chance assembly of parts: natural selection is a mechanism that can generate complexity, and there may be other mechanisms not yet discovered. This last brings up another problem with ID: most scientists appreciate that we do not yet understand everything there is to know about the natural world. But if a natural cause for something is not known (indeed, there is no scientific consensus on the origin of life, or the evolutionary assembly of the bacterial flagellum) it’s not helpful to throw up one’s hands and say, “I don’t know! God must have done it!” The scientific approach would be to say, “I don’t know, yet,” and keep looking.

ID does not identify the “intelligent agent” and nothing is said about how or when or with what this agent created life. This “creationism lite” makes no claims about the origin of Grand Canyon by Noah’s Flood, or a 10,000-year-old Earth. This avoids immediate rejection by the scholarly community, and accommodates a wide variety of antievolutionists, including biblical literalist/young Earth supporters as well as more moderate Christians. But most ID literature merely asserts the failure of evolution to explain complexity, and makes no attempt to provide an alternative model. It is a variant of the creation science maxim that “evidence against evolution is evidence for creationism.”

In recent years, the main think tank of ID, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, has shifted to advocating that “evidence against evolution,” or EAE, be taught rather than ID. It’s a tacit admission that there is no evidence for their position. Perhaps ID proponents began to realize that design implies a designer, an agent, and that judges would figure out pretty quickly that the intended agent was God. Once proposals for teaching ID were recognized as a back door way of teaching “God did it,” the Center realized, such policies would be declared unconstitutional. Better to convince students that evolution didn’t occur and let them conclude that the only reasonable explanation left is creation by God.

What about the aliens? Why doesn’t anybody talk about the damn aliens?

How cuckoos became the con artists of the bird world

How cuckoos became the con artists of the bird world
(University of Michigan News)
“The idea is, the parasites don’t have the limitations that normal birds have, so the prediction is that they would lay more eggs.” When Payne compared the ovaries of parasitic Black Cuckoo females with those of nonparasitic species to see how many eggs they had laid in their lifetimes, he found that the prediction held true.

In more recent work, Payne and Sorenson have tried to understand how cuckoos became parasitic in the first place. The question puzzled Charles Darwin, who thought the behavior might have arisen from species that occasionally lay eggs in other birds’ nests, but also raise their own broods, as Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos do. Another parenting pattern that might lead to brood parasitism is cooperative breeding, seen in cuckoos such as Anis and the Guira Cuckoo. In these birds, several mated pairs share a nest where they all lay eggs and care for the young. But it’s not all peace and love in the avian communes. Sometimes a female pitches out nestmates’ eggs when she lays her own.

Payne and Sorenson’s analysis, which combined traditional morphological methods with Payne’s song recordings and Sorenson’s molecular genetic analysis, showed that brood parasitism originated more than once in the cuckoos; not all parasitic species are from a single lineage. And their analysis confirmed what Darwin hypothesized: the trait seems to have come from the habit of occasionally laying eggs in another bird’s nest, not from cooperative breeding.

And I thought penguins were bad.

Autism Linked To Mirror Neuron Dysfunction

Autism Linked To Mirror Neuron Dysfunction
(UCSD News)
Mirror neurons are brain cells in the premotor cortex. First identified in macaque monkeys in the early 1990s, the neurons—also known as “monkey-see, monkey-do cells”—fire both when a monkey performs an action itself and when it observes another living creature perform that same action. Though it has been impossible to directly study the analogue of these neurons in people (since human subjects cannot be implanted with electrodes), several indirect brain-imaging measures, including EEG, have confirmed the presence of a mirror neuron system in humans.


As expected, mu wave suppression was recorded in the control subjects both when they moved and when they watched another human move. In other words, their mirror neuron systems acted normally. The mirror neurons of the subjects with autism spectrum disorders, however, responded anomalously—only to their own movement.

“The findings provide evidence that individuals with autism have a dysfunctional mirror neuron system, which may contribute to many of their impairments—especially those that involve comprehending and responding appropriately to others’ behavior,” said Lindsay Oberman, first author of the paper and UCSD doctoral student working in the labs of senior authors V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Jaime Pineda, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.


Another possible therapy would involve ordinary mirrors. Ramachandran has successfully treated amputees who experience pain or paralysis in their missing, or “phantom,” limbs by using a mirror reflection of their healthy limb to “trick” their brains into believing that the missing limb has been restored to pain-free motion. Since autistics’ mirror neurons respond to their own motion, the researchers say, perhaps their brains can be induced to perceive their own reflected movements as the movements of another human being.

“We have a long way to go before these therapeutic possibilities are a reality, but we’re that much closer now that we’ve linked autism to a specific region of the brain,” said Ramachandran. “More than just documenting a brain anomaly in autism, we’ve been able to relate symptoms that are unique to the disorder—loss of empathy and imitative skills—to the function of a particular circuit, the mirror neuron system.”

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Risk-taking boys do not get the girls

Risk-taking boys do not get the girls
(New Scientist)
Futile risk-taking might seem to have little going for it in Darwinian terms. So why were our rash ancestors not replaced by more cautious contemporaries?

One idea is that risk-takers are advertising their fitness to potential mates by showing off their strength and bravery. This fits with the fact that men in their prime reproductive years take more risks. To test this idea, William Farthing of the University of Maine in Orono surveyed 48 young men and 52 young women on their attitudes to risky scenarios. Men thought women would be impressed by pointless gambles, but women in fact preferred cautious men (Evolution and Human Behaviour, vol 26, p 171).

Reckless thrill-seekers might be trying a more subtle route to women’s affections. Men say they prefer their same-sex friends to be risk-takers, and women prefer high-status males. “So if he has higher status among other men, women might like him for his status, even though they don’t like the risk-taking in itself,” Farthing says.

See No Bias

See No Bias
(Washington Post)
The results of the millions of tests that have been taken anonymously on the Harvard Web site and other sites hint at the potential impact of the research. Analyses of tens of thousands of tests found 88 percent of white people had a pro-white or anti-black implicit bias; nearly 83 percent of heterosexuals showed implicit biases for straight people over gays and lesbians; and more than two-thirds of non-Arab, non-Muslim volunteers displayed implicit biases against Arab Muslims.

Overall, according to the researchers, large majorities showed biases for Christians over Jews, the rich over the poor, and men’s careers over women’s careers. The results contrasted sharply with what most people said about themselves—that they had no biases. The tests also revealed another unsettling truth: Minorities internalized the same biases as majority groups. Some 48 percent of blacks showed a pro-white or anti-black bias; 36 percent of Arab Muslims showed an anti-Muslim bias; and 38 percent of gays and lesbians showed a bias for straight people over homosexuals.


There is likely a biological reason people so quickly make assumptions—good or bad—about others, Banaji says. The implicit system is likely a part of the “primitive” brain, designed to be reactive rather than reasoned. It specializes in quick generalizations, not subtle distinctions. Such mental shortcuts probably helped our ancestors survive. It was more important when they encountered a snake in the jungle to leap back swiftly than to deduce whether the snake belonged to a poisonous species. The same mental shortcuts in the urban jungles of the 21st century are what cause people to form unwelcome stereotypes about other people, Banaji says. People revert to the shortcuts simply because they require less effort. But powerful as such assumptions are, they are far from permanent, she says. The latest research, in fact, suggests these attitudes are highly malleable.


But the tests do not measure actions. The race test, for example, does not measure racism as much as a race bias. Banaji is the first to say people ought to be judged by how they behave, not how they think. She tells incredulous volunteers who show biases that it does not mean they will always act in biased ways—people can consciously override their biases. But she also acknowledges a sad finding of the research: Although people may wish to act in egalitarian ways, implicit biases are a powerful predictor of how they actually behave.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Mathematics Of Love

The Mathematics Of Love
A Talk with John Gottman
Bob Levenson and I were very surprised when, in 1983, we found that we could actually predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, what was going to happen to a relationship over a three-year period just by examining their physiology and behavior during a conflict discussion, and later just from an interview about how the couple viewed their past. 90% accuracy! Nobody was getting that kind of prediction in psychology. In fact, Walter Michel had just published a book challenging psychology with really terribly low rates of being able to predict human behavior. He said the Emperor has no clothes. But here we were with huge correlations, and getting enormous stability in couples interaction over time (with no intervention). We thought at first that it might be just chance, but we found after doing study after study that very simple patterns replicated in sample after sample. You could tell from just looking at how a couple talked about how their day went, or talked about an area of conflict, what was going to happen to the relationship with a lot of accuracy.

That was surprising to us. It seemed that people either started in a mean-spirited way, a critical way, started talking about a disagreement, started talking about a problem as just a symptom of their partner’s inadequate character, which made their partner defensive and escalated the conflict, and people started getting mean and insulting to one another. That predicted the relationship was going to fall apart. 96% of the time the way the conflict discussion started in the first 3 minutes determined how it would go for the rest of the discussion. And four years later it was like no time had passed, their interaction style was almost identical. Also 69% of the time they were talking about the same issues, which we realized then were “perpetual issues” that they would never solve. These were basic personality differences that never went away. She was more extroverted or she was more of an explorer or he was more punctual or frugal.

The cynic in me thinks Gottman and Seligman are overly optimistic about curing humanity’s woes. I’d love to be proved wrong, though.

Scientists’ Nightstand (William Hirstein)

Scientists’ Nightstand
The Bookshelf talks with William Hirstein
(American Scientist)
What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Michael Shermer’s books (e.g., Why People Believe Weird Things [W.H. Freeman, 1997], The Borderlands of Science [Oxford University Press, 2001]) are fun and very accessible.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Phantoms in the Brain [William Morrow, 1998], by V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, captures the thrill of working with a creative experimentalist such as Ramachandran. It also drives home the vital point that scientists are not forced to choose between boring tractable problems and interesting intractable ones; if one is clever enough, the interesting problems can be made tractable.

Antonio Damasio gets better with each book. Looking for Spinoza [Harcourt, 2003] is his latest effort. He combines a massive knowledge of the mind/brain with a very sensible approach to issues of consciousness and sense of self.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Dinosaur Eggs Discovered Inside Mother—A First

Dinosaur Eggs Discovered Inside Mother—A First
(National Geographic News)
Many scientists believe birds evolved from dinosaurs. In their effort to prove this hypothesis, scientists appreciate hard evidence of similarities between the two types of creatures, including their reproductive biology.

“We can give a hypothesis, but it’s often very difficult to confirm the hypothesis,” Sato said. “Our specimen gives direct, undoubted evidence” that dinosaurs shared with birds some aspects of reproductive behavior.

Hans-Dieter Sues is the associate director for research and collections at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He said the find is “very interesting” but not unexpected, as it was predicted by previous studies.

“Still, it is neat to find such a fossil,” he said. Sues is a member of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.

An excellent addition to Dinosaur Adventure Land. No, really.

MIT students pull prank on conference

MIT students pull prank on conference
The prank recalled a 1996 hoax in which New York University physicist Alan Sokal succeeded in getting an entire paper with a mix of truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs and otherwise meaningless mumbo-jumbo published in the quarterly journal Social Text, published by Duke University Press.

Stribling said he and his colleagues only learned about the Social Text affair after submitting their paper.

“Rooter” features such mind-bending gems as: “the model for our heuristic consists of four independent components: simulated annealing, active networks, flexible modalities, and the study of reinforcement learning” and “We implemented our scatter/gather I/O server in Simula-67, augmented with opportunistically pipelined extensions.”

Stribling said the trio targeted WMSCI because it is notorious within the field of computer science for sending copious e-mails that solicit admissions to the conference.

The idea of a fake submission was to counter “fake conferences … which exist only to make money,” explained Stribling and his cohorts’ website, “SCIgen - An Automatic CS Paper Generator.”

“Our aim is to maximize amusement, rather than coherence,” it said. The website allows users to “Generate a Random Paper” themselves, with fields for inserting “optional author names.”

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Execution by injection far from painless

Execution by injection far from painless
(New Scientist)
Execution by lethal injection may not be the painless procedure most Americans assume, say researchers from Florida and Virginia.

They examined post-mortem blood levels of anesthetic and believe that prisoners may have been capable of feeling pain in almost 90% of cases and may have actually been conscious when they were put to death in over 40% of cases.

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated in the US, 788 people have been killed by lethal injection. The procedure typically involves the injection of three substances: first, sodium thiopental to induce anesthesia, followed by pancuronium bromide to relax muscles, and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart.

But doctors and nurses are prohibited by healthcare professionals’ ethical guidelines from participating in or assisting with executions, and the technicians involved have no specific training in administering anesthetics.

“My impression is that lethal injection as practiced in the US now is no more humane than the gas chamber or electrocution, which have both been deemed inhumane,” says Leonidas Koniaris, a surgeon in Miami and one of the authors on the paper. He is not, he told New Scientist, against the death penalty per se.

It’s time to subcontract this chore, for efficiency and economy.

Creationism’s assault on science

Creationism’s assault on science
(Toronto Star)
Although scientists elsewhere tend to think of creationism as an American problem, Alan Leshner, AAAS’s chief executive, is right to point out that the U.S. is not alone in the struggle. Success in North Carolina or Texas encourages creationists around the world.

For example, Brazil’s fast-growing evangelical Protestant population is becoming more aggressive in its fight against evolution teaching.

Opposition to creationist teaching should not be seen as an attack on religion. Many individual scientists are religious, but few need to invoke rational design by a creator to account for the amazing array of life on Earth.

We must reject the creationists’ argument that evolution and intelligent design are alternative theories that should be given equal attention. On some questions—the Earth is round, Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust, HIV causes AIDS—there is a consensus of academic opinion. As last week’s events in Rome have shown, faith plays a vital role in modern life. But its place is not in science lessons.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

On Reductionism

Excerpt from The Emerging Mind, (BBC, The Reith Lectures)
by Vilayanur Ramachandran
Many social scientists feel rather deflated when informed that beauty, charity, piety, and love are the result of the activity of neurons in the brain, but their disappointment is based on the false assumption that to explain a complex phenomenon in terms of its component parts (“reductionism”) is to explain it away. To understand why this is a fallacy, imagine it’s the twenty-second century and I am a neuroscientist watching you and your partner (Esmeralda) making love. I scan Esmeralda’s brain and tell you everything that’s going on in it when she is in love with you and is making love to you. I tell you about activity in her septum, in her hypothalamic nuclei, and how certain peptides are released along with the affiliation hormone prolactin, etc. You might then turn to her and say, “You mean that’s all there is to it? Your love isn’t real? It’s all just chemicals?” To which Esmeralda should respond, “On the contrary, all this brain activity provides hard evidence that I do love you, that I’m not just faking it. It should increase your confidence in the reality of my love.” And the same argument holds for art or piety or wit.

Homeopathy—Undiluted Tosh!

Homeopathy—Undiluted Tosh!
by Michael Hanlon (Daily Mail)
Of course, there have been thousands of anecdotal cases in which the homeopath has seemingly wrought a miracle. People have had a lifetime of chronic pain ended with the swig of a tincture of belladonna. Millions swear by their Bach Flower Remedies and Arnica.

But that does not mean homeopathy is responsible. It is one of the great truisms of medicine that with any relatively minor illness, doing nothing will usually be 100 per cent effective.

Our bodies possess a pretty formidable machine in the immune system, honed over millions of years of evolution to cope with whatever the world throws at us.

Homeopathy—effectively doing nothing—will of course ‘work’ most of the time if we have a functioning immune system.

In addition to the placebo effect.

Parents give unattractive children less attention

Researchers show parents give unattractive children less attention
Harrell’s findings are based on an observational study of children and shopping cart safety. With the approval of management at 14 different supermarkets, Harrell’s team of researchers observed parents and their two to five-year-old children for 10 minutes each, noting if the child was buckled into the grocery-cart seat, and how often the child wandered more than 10 feet away. The researchers independently graded each child on a scale of one to 10 on attractiveness.

Findings showed that 1.2 per cent of the least attractive children were buckled in, compared with 13.3 per cent of the most attractive youngsters. The observers also noticed the less attractive children were allowed to wander further away and more often from their parents. In total, there were 426 observations at the 14 supermarkets.

And I thought I was being given my own space. Sniff.

Evolution hearings rejected by scientists

Evolution hearings rejected by scientists
by Randy Scholfield (Wichita Eagle)
Predictably, BOE chairman Steve Abrams, one of three creationists who would preside over the hearings, suggested that the refusal meant the scientific community was incapable of defending evolution.

“It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘We can’t defend what’s put out there, so we’re not going to participate,’” Mr. Abrams said.

Well, no. It’s almost like they’re saying, “This rigged forum, with a predetermined outcome, has no credibility whatsoever in the scientific community. So what’s the point?”

Baiting scientists won’t get them to appear. Because as they rightly perceive, the hearings are a political effort to legitimize ID by parading a small number of “experts” before the public.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Backward Evolution

Backward Evolution
by Richard Cohen (Washington Post)
The fight over evolution is an odd and sad one. There is nothing about Darwinian theory that cannot be ascribed to God—Darwin himself referred to “the Creator” in his “The Origin of Species”—and back when I was in college and studying evolution, my teacher began the semester by saying, behold the world of God or behold something else: It is entirely up to you. Yet, 19 states are considering proposals that would require schools to question evolution, which are nothing less than proposals to inject religion into the curriculum. But why stop there? Why not introduce such skepticism into astronomy and have the sun revolve around the earth or have the earth stand still? These are questions that Clarence Darrow put to William Jennings Bryan at the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Amazingly, they still linger.

They do so not just because, as Darwin himself conceded, there are holes in the theory of evolution but because of an evolving political weakness in which intellectual honesty counts for less and less. Thus, you have political leaders from George Bush on down refusing to say whether they put any stock in evolution or believe, as apparently they think they should, that it is an affront to and assault on religion. Back in 1999 Bush was asked whether he was “a creationist,” and he responded by not responding: “I believe children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started.” In other words, it’s all the same: evolution, creationism and maybe something else from another religious tradition. This proves you can go to Yale University and learn nothing—not about evolution, mind you, but about intellectual integrity.

A New Theory Of Cognition

Pioneer In Artificial-Intelligence Software Devises New Theory Of Cognition
(Science Daily)
Hecht-Nielsen noted that the common method used in search engines, data mining and drug trial analysis—maximum a posteriori probability—is not the mechanism of cognition. “Humans and animals don’t do this,” he argued. “Instead, animal cognition maximizes cogency, and in a non-logic environment, cogency maximization implements what I call the ‘duck test’: if a small animal waddles like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck and flies like a duck, we conclude that it is a duck because that is the conclusion which most strongly supports the probability of the assumed facts being true.”

To validate his hypothesis, Hecht-Nielsen and his colleagues demonstrated the use of confabulation for language generation. Some 8,000 books worth of English-language text were streamed through a computer-based architecture, and when two consecutive sentences within a paragraph seemed topically coherent using a simple thought process, they were marked with symbols and linked. “After a few days of ‘reading,’ the confabulation architecture had accumulated billions of individual knowledge links,” said Hecht-Nielsen. “These items of knowledge along with confabulation were then used to carry out the continuation of a sentence based on the first three words alone, or the first three words and knowledge of the previous sentence.”

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Truth Behind the Amityville Horror

Voice of Reason: The Truth Behind the Amityville Horror
(Live Science)
The truth behind The Amityville Horror was finally revealed when Butch DeFeo’s lawyer, William Weber, admitted that he, along with the Lutzes, “created this horror story over many bottles of wine.” The house was never really haunted; the horrific experiences they had claimed were simply made up. Jay Anson further embellished the tale for his book, and by the time the film’s screenwriters had adapted it, any grains of truth that might have been there were long gone. While the Lutzes profited handsomely from their story, Weber had planned to use the haunting to gain a new trial for his client. George Lutz reportedly still claims that the events are mostly true, but has offered no evidence to back up his claim.

The Proper Reverence Due Those Who Have Gone Before

The Proper Reverence Due Those Who Have Gone Before
P. Z. Myers (
Remember, each black bar is an icon representing a long, elaborate book on the scale of the Bible, which in turn is only a small representative subset of the human experience over a span of time. So much has been lost to us, and those few scraps we do have must stand in proxy for such a burden of history.

And, you know, there are people now who claim that one book is sufficient, that it is complete, that it is enough to explain who we are and where we came from.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so moved reading a science piece.

Unintelligible Redesign

Unintelligible Redesign
This is the way creationism ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
by William Saletan (Slate)
A theory isn’t just a bunch of criticisms, even if they’re valid. A theory ties things together. It explains and predicts. Intelligent design does neither. It doesn’t explain why part of our history seems intelligently designed and part of it doesn’t. Why are our feet and our back muscles poorly designed for walking? Why are we afflicted by lethal viruses? Why have so many females died in childbirth? ID doesn’t explain these things. It just shrugs at them. “Design theory seeks to show, based on scientific evidence, that some features of living things may be designed by a mind or some form of intelligence,” says one ID proponent. Some? May? Some? What kind of theory is that?

Riding the dinosaur

Riding the dinosaur
“It’s based on a false premise, that complexity cannot self-organize, which is in fact not true,” says geology professor David Schwimmer of Columbus State University.

How do we know this?

“Well, all you have to do is pick up a snowflake,” he says. “Complexity is spontaneous. Crystals form naturally, or molecules arrange themselves spontaneously.”

Intelligent design is the lab coat creationism wears to sneak into a science class. The courts won’t let it ride in on a dinosaur. Judges say no matter what you call it, belief in a deity is a religion, not a science. So there’ll be no dinosaur rides in biology class, and that’s a shame. The kids would love that.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Life’s top 10 greatest inventions

Life’s top 10 greatest inventions
(New Scientist)

The more complex functions of the human brain—social interaction, decision-making and empathy, for example—seem to have evolved from these basic systems controlling food intake. The sensations that control what we decide to eat became the intuitive decisions we call gut instincts. The most highly developed parts of the human frontal cortex that deal with decisions and social interactions are right next to the parts that control taste and smell and movements of the mouth, tongue and gut. There is a reason we kiss potential mates—it’s the most primitive way we know to check something out.

Incidentally, death is life’s invention too.

Fossil Records Show Biodiversity Comes and Goes

Fossil Records Show Biodiversity Comes and Goes
(Berkeley Lab Research News)
In examining their results, Muller and Rohde found that the fossil diversity cycle is most evident when only short-lived genera (those that survived less than 45 million years) are considered. They also found that some organisms seem to be immune to the cycle, while others are exceptionally sensitive. For example, corals, sponges, arthropods and trilobites follow the cycle, but fish, squid and snails do not. In general, longer-lived genera that are more diverse and widespread stand a better chance of resisting the 62 million year cycle.

That should explain the hippies.

The Descent of Man

The Descent of Man
(Science Made Stupid)
Early Man

There were many “missing links” between the earliest ancestral apes and modern Homo sapiens. Scientists learn about these extinct species from fossil remains. Here is an example (at left) of a fossil found near the famous “Lucy” fossil discovery. It is the skull of an australopithecine male, named “Desi” by its discoverers. Another couple, named Fred and Ethel, were found in a nearby cave, but Desi is the best preserved specimen.

Scientists can learn much from a relatively small fragment of skeleton. From this fossil, it was deduced that Desi stood about four-foot seven inches tall, walked with a slight limp, disliked zucchini and was a registered Democrat.

So there!

Shoe leather, not sixth sense, breaks cases open

Shoe leather, not sixth sense, breaks cases open
by Clint Van Zandt (MSNBC)
Each of us can believe what we choose, but in the criminal justice field, crimes are solved by investigation and information—not by rubbing sticks together, huddling over a Ouija Board, or talking to a spirit guide. A 17th-century dowsing sleuth was tested in Paris and failed every test given to him. A 1991 test of a London-based police psychic concerning her ability to use psychometry to solve crimes suggested that she had no such skill. And a standing $1 million reward for anyone who can prove paranormal power still remains unclaimed.

What happens many times is that professed psychics allow themselves the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. After the case is solved, they make their previously vague predictions somehow fit the crime and the criminal.

Part Man, Part Monkey

Part Man, Part Monkey
Bruce Springsteen, Tracks
Well did God make man in a breath of holy fire
Or did he crawl on up out of the muck and mire
Well the man on the street believes what the Bible tells him so
Well you can ask me, mister, because I know
Tell them soul-suckin’ preachers to come on down and see
Part man, part monkey, baby that’s me

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Making Of A Physicist: A Talk With Murray Gell-Mann

The Making Of A Physicist: A Talk With Murray Gell-Mann
By the time I got to Caltech Feynman was very well established. He was eleven and a half years older than I. We worked together for several years, and it was very pleasant and exciting. We would bounce ideas off each other, and call each other at odd times of day and night. We would try things and become enthusiastic about them and then find they didn’t work, and sometimes we would find other things that did work; it was quite fun. After a while, however, his preoccupation with himself and his own image began to get on my nerves. He was a very good scientist, but he spent a great deal of effort generating anecdotes about himself. In addition, whenever we did anything together he would somehow think of it as his work. It’s not that he didn’t appreciate me—he actually admired me a great deal—but somehow he couldn’t keep his own ego out of a common effort. Finally, I just couldn’t collaborate with him any more. We had worked closely together for five or six years and were good friends, but eventually I got turned off.

The effort that Dick spent generating stories about himself was unbelievable. He insisted on being different, always. His father had taught him that. However, in many cases it doesn’t pay to be different. Doing the regular thing is often okay. For instance, he advocated on national television that people not brush their teeth or floss. We shared the same firm of dentists, and I knew that they were having terrible trouble with his teeth. They tried to persuade him to brush, or floss, or both, and he wouldn’t do it. They kept bringing in scientific papers showing that it was useful; but he kept insisting it was just a superstition.

Life lessons

Life lessons

What is the one thing everyone should learn about science? Spiked asked 250 scientists—here we bring you some of the most provocative responses
(The Guardian)
Matt Ridley Founding chair of the International Centre for Life

Science is not a catalogue of facts, but a search for new mysteries. Science increases the store of wonder and mystery in the world; it does not erode it. The myth that science gets rid of mysteries, started by the Romantic poets, was well nailed by Albert Einstein—whose thought experiments about relativity are far more otherworldly, elusive, thrilling, and baffling than anything dreamt up by poets.

Isaac Newton showed us the mysteries of deep space, Charles Darwin showed us the mysteries of deep time, and Francis Crick and James D Watson showed us the mysteries of deep encoding. To get rid of those insights would be to reduce the world’s stock of awe.

Roderich Tumulka Researcher in physics at the Mathematics Institute at the University of Tübingen

Paranormal phenomena do not exist. Magic, witchcraft, mind-reading, clairvoyance, faith healing and similar practices do not work and never have worked. It makes a crucial difference whether we imagine ourselves surrounded by supernatural beings and happenings or whether instead we see ourselves in a world that science can help us understand. Many scientific principles, concepts, or discoveries need not, despite their importance, be understood by the public, but just by the experts. The question of the paranormal is different in this respect.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Newt vs. Garter Snake, an Evolutionary Arms Race

IU scientist finds snakes that are keeping pace in toxic arms race

TTX is a defensive compound found in many different animals, including pufferfish, octopuses, and primitive chordates called tunicates. It is used in low concentrations to treat morphine and heroin addicts, and it has been identified as Haitian voodoo’s “zombie” drug.

Evolutionary biologists have long been able to see the results of arms races between predators and prey. Prey often acquire wildly exaggerated traits, such as flying fishes’ airborne abilities or the porcupine’s armor of quills. But the exact way predators, prey and their genes change over time during such races has largely stumped the scientists.

With their new report, the researchers pinpoint a basic mechanism by which the garter snakes keep themselves alive and maintain access to a valuable food source—even if the cost is that the snakes are a little less spry.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Okay, We Give Up

Okay, We Give Up
We feel so ashamed
by The Editors (Scientific American)
Moreover, we shamefully mistreated the Intelligent Design (ID) theorists by lumping them in with creationists. Creationists believe that God designed all life, and that’s a somewhat religious idea. But ID theorists think that at unspecified times some unnamed superpowerful entity designed life, or maybe just some species, or maybe just some of the stuff in cells. That’s what makes ID a superior scientific theory: it doesn’t get bogged down in details.

Of course, I’m the last person to post this, but I was waiting for the “editorial” to come out in full on the site.

Cowardice, Creationism and Science Education

Cowardice, Creationism and Science Education: An Open Letter to the Universities
(SciAm Perspectives)
But for the universities to argue righteously that K-12 science education needs serious reform and then to back away from one of the most obvious manifestations of anti-science attitudes doesn’t even rate as hypocrisy. It’s political and intellectual cowardice. And by staying silent, they become part of the problem.


Emory scientist finds different paths lead to similar cognitive abilities

Emory scientist finds different paths lead to similar cognitive abilities
Recent research by Marino and her colleagues has traced the changing encephalization, or relative brain size, of cetaceans during the past 47 million years by using magnetic resonance imaging and histological studies of the fossil record. While modern humans have brains that are seven times bigger than would be expected for our body size, giving us an encephalization level of seven, some modern dolphins and whales have an encephalization level close to five—not a huge difference, says Marino. For example, Homo sapiens’ closest relatives, the great apes, have encephalization levels of only two to two-and-a-half.

“While humans are the most encephalized—the brainiest—creatures on earth, we are relative newcomers to that status,” says Marino. “The cetaceans enjoyed a tremendous increase in brain size and organization about 35 million years ago, whereas humans got their big brains much more recently during the past one to two million years.”

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Assortative Mating Theory

The Assortative Mating Theory
A Talk with Simon Baron-Cohen (
The results of the experiment were that we found more boys than girls looked longer at the mechanical mobile. And more girls than boys looked longer at the human face. Given that it was a sex difference that emerged at birth, it means that you can’t attribute the difference to experience or culture. Twenty-four hours old. Now you might say, well, they’re not exactly new-born, it would have been better to get them at 24 minutes old—or even younger. But obviously we had to respect the wishes of the parents and the doctors to let the baby relax after the trauma of being born. And let the parents get to know their baby. So strictly speaking, it might have been one day of social experience. But nonetheless, this difference is emerging so early that suggests it’s at least partly biological.

Where do they all come from?

Where do they all come from?
(Christian Science Monitor)
Evo Devo, evolutionary developmental biology, intertwines Earth’s family of animals in a way not done in the past: Its most surprising finding is that all animals, including those with arms, wings, or fins, originated from a small number of primitive “master” genes.

Over long spans of time, that “ancient tool kit” of genes evolved animals and created the enormous diversity around us: stripes in zebras, spectacularly colored butterfly wings, and intricate human hands. One ancient gene led to the creation of eyes across the entire animal kingdom, writes Carroll, a genetics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The End of Reason

The End of Reason
by David Morris (AlterNet)
The central problem with organized, assertive religion, of course, is that it endows superstition with a moral and messianic fervor. God-directed superstition can be a lethal force. Indeed, one might argue that this type of force is behind much of the violence around the world. The conflicts in Palestine (Jews v. Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians v. Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants v. Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians) and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims) constitute only a few of the places where religion has been the explicit cause of million of deaths in the last ten years.

Sam Harris discusses “the burden of paradise.” Why are there suicide bombers? “Because they actually believe what they say they believe. They believe in the literal truth of the Koran … Why did 19 well-educated, middle class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed that they would go straight to paradise for doing so.”

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Darwinian Audiophile

The Darwinian Audiophile
But Darwin turned things around. The small, ubiquitous differences among members of a species are not merely noise on a robust, unchanging signal—the essence, or the underlying form of the species. Instead, those differences are the signal. They are the main stuff of life and its history. Nature cares not a whit about essences, only about these variations and deviations. As Darwin metaphorically put it, “Natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.”

Mother Nature sounds like an audiophile, doesn’t she? Daily and hourly scrutinizing her audio rig for the slightest variations in performance; rejecting those interconnects and components that are bad, preserving those that work well together… But it’s not this obsession with hardware that makes audiophiles Darwinian. Rather, high-end audio encourages a populational view of music much like Darwin’s populational view of species.

Gertrude, Gertrude, What is the Answer?

Gertrude, Gertrude, What is the Answer?
(Butterflies and Wheels)
A bit more on this ‘science can’t answer the why questions’ trope. Because it’s a surprisingly enduring and frequently-heard one, and yet it’s completely worthless. If it’s so worthless, why is it so enduring and so often repeated? Because not enough people say often enough how worthless it is? That must be it. Okay so let’s all start saying that more often, and maybe with our combined weight we can beat it to death.

What the silly phrase means is that science doesn’t permit itself to make up answers to why questions, whereas religion and ‘theology’ do. The idea that that makes religion and theology superior rather than grossly inferior is ludicrous.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

“Popeye” Jurassic Mammal Found, Had “Peculiar Teeth”

“Popeye” Jurassic Mammal Found, Had “Peculiar Teeth”
(National Geographic News)
The researchers anticipate tiny Fruitafossor will enjoy great stature in the study of early mammal evolution. Until recently most dinosaur-era mammals were believed to be simple, ground-dwelling insect eaters. Fruitafossor, however, appears poised to change that perception.


Fruitafossor’s Popeye-like forearms not only allowed the animal to burrow for insects but possibly to hide from Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and other large dinosaurs of the day.

Or as some scientists like to call them, Bluto and Brutus.

Rats rule

Rats rule
(Globe and Mail)
But attitudes and the treatment of lab rats have changed as we become more aware of the complexity of the rodents’ behaviour and have more respect for the animals, Prof. Whishaw says.

“There was a time when people thought animals were the equivalent of machines and humans were different because they had a soul. It would be hard to find a person in that category any more. We now realize that animals are much more complicated than that. They are much more like us than less like us,” he says.

And vice versa.

You won’t fool the children of the evolution

You won’t fool the children of the evolution
(Sunday Herald)
Dawkins’s own intolerance for religion began when he was in his teens and a pupil at Oundle public school in England. “Intolerance isn’t quite the word I would use,” he says, correcting me. “My disbelief in religion began at about 15.” And the cause? “I grew up and became old enough to think.”

He cites a recent survey in Nature magazine, which examined religious belief in elite American scientists. It showed that 90% of the members of the National Academy (the US equivalent of the Royal Society) described themselves as atheists.

I ask him if he thinks science and religion can co-exist at all. He thinks a form of religion can, as long as it follows what he calls Einsteinian principles. “When Einstein used the word God he most definitely didn’t mean any kind of supernatural person or being. He was using the word as a poetic signifier for that which we don’t yet understand,” he says.

“I would say I belong in Einstein’s camp. We both believe in a sense of awe and reverence for the deep mysteries of the universe but we don’t believe in anything supernatural.”


Saturday, April 02, 2005

Reflections on mirror neurons

Reflections on mirror neurons
(Baltimore Sun)

In another study, Iacoboni found that subjects who displayed high levels of empathy in a psychological questionnaire fired more mirror neurons when viewing people in emotional states than test subjects whose responses showed less empathy. He plans to present the findings of his empathy study at a conference for autism researchers in Boston this month.

Iacoboni and other neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons were a major factor in our evolutionary development and that as we learn more, their importance to psychology will rival DNA’s role in biology. They argue that being able to read the intentions of others is one achievement that separates us from the great apes.

And sociopaths.

Scientists Inseminate a Whale

Scientists Inseminate a Whale

Aquarium scientists, with help from their peers at Sea World, artificially inseminated Kela, a 24-year-old beluga, on Thursday morning.

After giving the whale hormones to induce the release of an egg into the reproductive tract, workers used a crane to lift Kela out of the water and place her on a mat. Frozen sperm from a Sea World beluga was then inserted. The process took only a few minutes.

Yes, the title is misleading. His name was Todd, not Jonah. No, there were no sperm whales involved. And no, it didn’t have anything to do with humpbacks. Happy now?

An Inquiry Concerning the Design and Function of the Xbox 2

An Inquiry Concerning the Design and Function of the Xbox 2, with Remarks Concerning its Origins
(Ars Technica)
It is clear, upon the evidence furnished by the clever composition of the many minute interlocking parts of the machine, that the Xbox 2 was quite deliberately fashioned in its full perfection by the skilled hand of a single craftsman, to whom all the credit for the miraculous nature of the device is due. Those irrational fools who, in the grip of a vain and atheistic theory concerning the origin of this present cosmos, have suggested that the device has somehow arisen by the vagaries and vicissitudes of chance (atoms colliding in the void as it were) are clearly in error. For surely if one were to have come across such a contraption on a deserted island, one would most logically infer the prior existence of men on that island. How could one think otherwise? The burden of proof therefore rests upon the man who suggests that the Xbox 2 arose by chance.

Would you Adam and Eve it?

Would you Adam and Eve it?
Where do Boris and his fellow dinosaurs fit into this worldview?

Many were killed off in Noah’s flood and became fossils. Others hung around to scare our ancestors who called them dragons. Bill Cooper, a council member of CSM, argues the 8th Century poem Beowulf records a genuine encounter with a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The chairman, Dr David Rosevear, says even non-Christian visitors often accept their claims, “in spite of the brainwashing they get from the media.”

“Typically,” he says, in a statement that would make arch evolutionist Richard Dawkins’ blood run cold, “a mother will bring her children round in the holidays and say to me ‘Yes, that’s pretty much what I always felt’.”

The silent majority is speaking up. It’s too difficult to let go of cherished notions. Sometimes I feel this is a lost cause.

Friday, April 01, 2005

UFO snafus

Extraterrestrial UFOs never land on earth’s surface to avoid interference in their electromagnetic flux–but accidents happen
(India Daily)
According to computer models based on the UFO flight patterns in the world; a new finding is coming to light. According to the model, UFOs never land on the earth’s surface. They always float above the ground. Like Hoover craft they can literally float few inches above the ground.

So it isn’t fancy tractor beams they use for abductions, but plain ol’ suction. I bet they have various attachments and nozzles for their anal probes too.

Related: All human beings receive extraterrestrial UFO mind control signals.

Strangely Familiar

Strangely Familiar
(Scientific American)
Understanding the neurological basis for déjà vu would certainly help scientists pin down its trigger, but neural connections are only partially understood. For a long time, one popular theory held that delayed neurological transmission was responsible. When we perceive, pieces of information from different neuronal paths enter the processing centers of the cerebrum and must, of course, blend together to consistently produce a uniform impression. It would make sense that any delay in some aspect of transmission could be muddled and set off déjà vu.

In 1963 Robert Efron, then at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Boston, tested this general notion. His experiments led him to conclude that the temporal lobe of the brain’s left hemisphere was responsible for the punctual sorting of incoming data. He also found that this location received signals coming over visual pathways twice, within milliseconds of one another—once directly and once via a normal detour through the right hemisphere. If, for some reason, a delay were to occur in the detoured transmission, the left temporal lobe would register a time lapse on the second arrival and could interpret the visual scene as having already happened.

After a long break, I experienced déjà vu, about two weeks ago. I savored it, relishing each microsecond. If only I could recapture the existential terror of contemplating infinity once again.

Tantra act: Cousin kills five-year-old

Tantra act: Cousin kills five-year-old
(Mid Day)
After his arrest, Praveen told the police that he was obsessed with being rich and successful. In February 2004, he met a Dharavi-based sadhu who called himself Bangali baba. The baba advised him to arrange for a nar bali or human sacrifice.

On April 4, on the tantrik’s suggestion, Praveen took his cousin to Mahalakshmi Race Course on the pretext of showing him around and strangled him under a neem tree.

Blood is indeed thicker than water; he could’ve strangled a complete stranger, but chose not to.

Muslims Insist On Polygamy

Muslims Insist On Polygamy
(All Africa)
Kiyimba told Kadaga that Muslims, who were peace-loving, opposed the Bill because it was against the Qur’an and makes Muslims outlaws.

Waving four fingers, the men shouted: “Twagala kuwaasa banna!” (We want to marry four wives!)

The women also flashed four fingers and said, “Mutuleke batuwasse!” (Let them marry us!)

Aww … such a heartwarming picture.

Health-Africa: Thou Shalt Not Condomise

Health-Africa: Thou Shalt Not Condomise
(All Africa)
During a meeting held earlier this year in the commercial hub of Johannesburg, forum leader Ashwin Trikamjee said that for moral and religious reasons, the body placed “a greater emphasis on faithfulness and abstinence as opposed to the use of condoms.”

In an interview with IPS, Ahmad Kathrada of the Jamiatul Ulama—an Islamic group based in the coastal city of Durban—said his organization had education initiatives to promote these two behaviors, and that there were no circumstances under which Muslims were allowed to use condoms.

Related: The fastest growing religion in the world.

Google gulp!

Google gulp!

From the FAQ:

11. When will you take Google Gulp out of beta?

Man, if you pressure us, you just drive us away. We’ll commit when we’re ready, okay? Besides, what’s so great about taking things out of beta? It ruins all the romance, the challenge, the possibilities, the right to explore. Carpe diem, ya know? Maybe we’re jaded, but we’ve seen all these other companies leap headlong into 1.0, thinking their product is exactly what they’ve been dreaming of all their lives, that everything is perfect and hunky-dory–and the next thing you know some vanilla copycat release from Redmond is kicking their butt, the Board is holding emergency meetings and the CEO is on CNBC blathering sweatily about “a new direction” and “getting back to basics.” No thanks, man. We like our freedom.

Better than their stuffy blog. They should do this more often, not just once a year.

Update: The bottle caps are already available on eBay.

Related: Watch your Gmail account grow. That’s no joke.

Rhesus Pieces

Rhesus Pieces
The science behind why men are big apes
by Gene Weingarten (Washington Post)
Gina: Why on Earth would male monkeys pay to see up-close pictures of naked female monkey butts when, any time they wanted, they could just walk up to a female monkey and inspect her naked butt? Female monkeys do not generally wear Prada jeans.

Gene: Maybe, just maybe, the male monkey would rather look at the pictures than go through the whole rigmarole necessary to be permitted to inspect the female monkey butt. Maybe he doesn’t want to have to first bring the female monkey a nut, which she will reject, so he then has to bring her another, better nut. Maybe he doesn’t want to have to chatter in an engaging fashion, while she sits on that butt and judges his chatter against the chatter of other male monkeys. Maybe he doesn’t want to have to first carefully groom himself of all his lice, except the really nice, fat ones, which he will leave for her. Maybe he is just tired of the whole complicated rumba and will happily pay the price of giving up an apple juice in order to avoid the dance and take his jollies elsewhere. What I am saying is that maybe this exhausting ritual helps foster pornography (which, as an enlightened male, I of course continue to find disgraceful).

It gets better towards the end.

Animals Laughed Long Before Humans, Study Says

Animals Laughed Long Before Humans, Study Says
(National Geographic News)
There is ample evidence that many other mammals make play sounds, including tickle-induced panting, which resembles human laughter. Indeed, animals are capable of many emotional feelings, just like humans, some scientists say.

“The recognition by neuroscientists that the brain mechanisms underlying pain, pleasure, fear, and lust are the same in humans and other mammals underscores our similarity to other species and is extremely important,” said Tecumseh Fitch, a psychology lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Most likely they were laughing at the early hominids, those clumsy apes. But … last laugh’s on us, suckers!